Running in a Winter Wonderland
The Mountain Mist 50K, Huntsville, Alabama
January 25, 2003
By Jeffery S. Bryan
The Mountain Mist 50K race flyer said it all: "Expect anything." And anything is what we got. Just north of Birmingham on Friday afternoon, Gary Griffin and I started to see dustings of snow on the sides of the road. This got us speculating that we might get to see snow during the race. Our fears and/or jubilance were confirmed when a business associate of Gary's, who lived in Huntsville, told us that he had a foot of snow on his deck that morning. We had to laugh at what we had got ourselves into with this adventure.
As we entered the City of Huntsville, the snow began to become more prevalent. At the Huntsville Hilton, snow and ice could be seen on the surface of the parking lot. Upon exiting the truck, I stepped on a patch of ice and almost did a face plant in the parking lot. Definitely not a good omen of things to come. As we were heading to our room, we had to walk past the hotel swimming pool. The pool was half-frozen over. Bad omen, number two.
Driving up the mountain to Monte Sano State Park the morning of the race, snow and ice could be seen everywhere. This was not going to be just an ordinary mountain trail run, if there is such a thing, this was going to be real nasty. In what was an attempt to relax and prepare himself for the adventure to come, Gary broke into his rendition of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." I just had to laugh and join in the best that I could. It is pretty safe to say that we will not be invited to sing at any half-time shows.
We entered the stone building which was serving as the on-site race headquarters for the mandatory runner pre-race check in. A fire was going in the fireplace and throngs of runners were huddled next to it drinking hot chocolate and coffee. There were multitudes of people crammed into that little building. For the record, this is no small event. This race is one of the larger ultras held in the southeast. This year's event had a limit of 225 and capped out a couple of weeks ago. After check-in, I reconsidered what I was wearing. I usually run in shorts in all conditions but decided to forego that idea and wear sweats.
The race started promptly at 8:00 CST and the fun soon began. The first quarter of a mile was through the parking lot and down a road to get to the trailhead. In a group of runners that was just behind me, a man hit an ice patch on the road and went down. Shouts of "Are you all right?" and "Shake it off" filled the frozen air. My expectations were quickly changed from running fast to trying not to do my own reenactment of the Wide World of Sports Agony of Defeat Moment.
Just over a mile into the race a large glacier patch reared its ugly head. The Fed-Ex guy at the hotel had warned Gary and me the previous day about this, but his warning was completely forgotten in the excitement of the race. I was coming down this rocky section of single track and trying to keep my eyes on the feet of the guy about twenty yards in front me to get an idea of the best path to follow. Then in a split second, I was no longer seeing his feet on the ground as he went airborne as he hit the glacier. I then proceeded to do my best slide into second base for about twenty feet across the ice. Gary had a more unpleasant experience on this portion of the trail. As he did the worst ever impersonation of Olympic gold medal figure skater, Sara Hughes, he simultaneously performed an ill advised experiment as to whether the ice was harder than the back of his head. It doesn't take a Rocket Scientist (and there were plenty around to submit their opinions since Huntsville is known as " The Rocket City") to determine which would win this encounter. But being the true ultra runner that he is, Gary wasn't going to let a smack to the head knock any sense into him. He got back up and continued to run.
My run was starting to get pretty enjoyable after the glacier. I was cruising along and somehow avoiding any major disasters. I encountered incredible scenery and was enjoying the company of my fellow runners. I had the pleasant experience of hitting the first bad hill known as K2 with a young woman who was from Pennsylvania. K2 is a 400 foot climb in probably less than 400 meters of distance. I was thankful for having someone else to suffer with on this climb. Somewhere on the course between 17 to 20 miles, I had a distinguished masters runner, David Jones, catch up to me. David is the 1997 winner of the Badwater Ultra Marathon and has competed in many other tough ultra events. I was honored to be running with such an accomplished runner. While running with David, I witnessed the worst "face plant" that I have ever seen. On a downhill stretch, David hit a loose, ice covered rock, did a 180 degree spin and then slammed himself into a boulder. It sounded incredibly bad and looked much worse. I hurried to his side to see what assistance I could provide. As far as I was concerned the race was over right there. Looking up, David tells me to go on ahead. I objected. I told him that I wasn't just going to let him lay there in the woods and insisted that he needed help. He said that he didn't need any help and that all that he needed was to get back on his feet. He pulled himself up and we continued to run together for about a quarter mile. He told me that he would be fine after he had a chance to run it off. He wasn't kidding. He not only left me in the dust, he went on to blow away his own masters course record. David now ranks as one of the toughest people that I have ever met.
After David pulled away, I continued on the trail with the fear of "The Waterline" looming. "The Waterline" occurs at approximately 23 miles and appears to be a 2 mile almost vertical climb. Upon getting there, its reputation didn't disappoint. It is absolutely the worst experience that I've ever had in an ultra. It took me almost 40 minutes to navigate this 2 mile section of the course. Near the top of this monster, you are on your hands and knees crawling on the ice and rocks. You are trying to find a secure rock to grab onto and a safe place to plant your foot. I had a young woman with me at this point and she continuously thanked me for showing her where to grab onto the rock. I finally had to tell her that I had no idea what I was doing and that she wouldn't be thanking me when I got us both killed. Fortunately, we got to the top and lived to tell about it.
If you think that after "The Waterline" it was all downhill, then you would be setting yourself up for disappointment. Yes, there was about another 2 miles of relatively downhill running over rocks but that only set the stage for the final climb. The name of the final climb is labeled on the official course map as "Censored." It is understandable as to why. By the time I got to the 29.3 mile aide station at the top of this 2 mile beast, the words that I had uttered during the ascent were many and would have been the pride and joy of a Marine Boot Camp sergeant. To add insult to injury, there was a sign on a tree near the top, that stated something in the way of : "If you walked this hill then you are a wimp, a whiner, or a weenie. Which one are you?" As I cruised over to the table, I replied that "I'm a weenie." It seemed like the best answer at that point.
Leaving the aide station and heading to the finish line was not an easy chore. This aide station was as well stocked with supplies as you could ask for. They even had some dude dressed like a Viking working there to entertain the runners and volunteers. But then again, after climbing the last hill I can't be totally sure that it wasn't some weird vision that I was having. The course was relatively flat on the way in but a new challenge awaited. Mud and plenty of it. This portion of the course was exposed to direct sunlight and had had a chance to thaw out. I may not be able to handle rocks, snow, and ice but mud is something that I can deal with. I slopped my way on in to the finish without mishap. The finish area was loaded with almost everything that a runner could want. They had plenty of pizza, cookies, cake, etc. Nothing was spared.
I always learn something new in every ultra that I participate in and this
one was no exception. My lessons learned include:
1) Alaskan Caribou can turn snow brown (Don't ask)
2) I'm a better road runner than rocky trail runner than snow runner than ice runner
3) Figure skating and ultra running would not make for a good biathlon
4) Mountain Mist is a first class event that everyone should experience